On any given evening at the Duet restaurant and nightclub in Westwood Village, patrons are inspired by the live salsa music or the sounds of a deejay's rhythm and blues records to get up and form an impromptu dance floor next to the stage.
But the dancing doesn't last long.
"We have to interrupt them and ask them to stop," said Duet co-owner Chris Mallick. "It can get very awkward and embarrassing."
Mallick has little choice if he wants to avoid citations and possibly even jail time. In Westwood Village--located just below UCLA and its 36,000 students--an exacting set of local ordinances make it illegal to just get up and dance. The lack of nightlife in the Village has drawn groans from UCLA students for years, but this time around, the dispute over the Village's entertainment options has turned far more serious.
Duet has challenged both Westwood's dancing laws and the community's powerful homeowner associations that enthusiastically support strict zoning rules in the Village.
What raises the stakes of this particular zoning dispute is the belief among Duet's management, patrons and many UCLA students that community complaints about the club are motivated by something more insidious than simple disdain for the samba.
"No one objected to Sunday swing dancing, '80s pop nights or Thursday disco dancing," Mallick said. "No one had any objection to dancing at all so long as the people dancing were white."
The club has been cited for illegal dancing four times since December, and a zoning administrator turned down the club's request for a dancing permit in June. Duet is appealing that ruling in a hearing tomorrow, but with many homeowners staunchly opposed to the club's activities, Mallick is not overconfident about his chances of getting the denial overturned.
Mallick said his club has offered dancing in one form or another almost immediately after it opened in March last year. The complaints, though, didn't begin until seven months later, when Duet started catering to a primarily African American and Latino clientele.
"As a white male, when I heard about racism, I was too often skeptical," Mallick said. "But I've seen it now firsthand. It's awful, and it's ugly, and it's alive and well in Westwood."
Not so, answer Duet's opponents. What is alive and well in Westwood, they say, is a healthy respect for local laws that Duet has consistently and blatantly broken. In addition to the dancing citations, Duet has been cited three times by Fire Department inspectors for massive overcrowding. A handful of fights have broken out at the club, and a minor was served alcohol.
"I have not been in Duet, so I don't know what kind of crowd they have," said Sandy Brown, co-president of the Holmby-Westwood Property Owners Assn., a group opposed to dancing at the club. City Councilman Michael Feuer agreed. He said that given the club's pattern of breaking the law, the potentially dangerous mix of alcohol, big crowds and dancing is better left to "more responsible" establishments.
"I have a responsibility to the community," Feuer said. "Picture the outcry, if after having had the overcrowding citations, there were to be a fire there."
Feuer said he initially was undecided on Duet's application for a dance permit. At an earlier hearing, the councilman said he would consider supporting the application if Duet could operate citation-free until the next hearing. Duet, Feuer said, failed to live up to that condition.
"I take the issue of race extremely seriously, and I think it trivializes the issue of race and cheapens it when it's invoked in this context," Feuer said.
Still, others in the Westwood community question the unusual attention being focused on Duet. As Catherine Yuen, 21, a student at UCLA, said, "You just have to ask yourself, 'What's different at Duet?' "
Although Mallick acknowledged that his club has violated the law, he claimed that it was ignorance of local regulations that caused the problems, not willful disregard. And he asserted that other Westwood establishments violated similar laws just as frequently as Duet did, but were not subject to the same sort of law enforcement scrutiny.
Police said they focused on Duet because of the extraordinary number of complaints from community activists. And like it or not, police must investigate all complaints, said Sgt. Doug Abney of the West Los Angeles vice squad.
To try to reach a resolution with the club, Abney said he has spoken with Mallick numerous times, and explained what the club needed to do to comply with the law.
"What irks the Police Department is when any business deliberately flaunts the law," Abney said. "We take that personally."